“Over time, I gradually became invested in the idea of reimagining London as a cyberpunk metropolis,” the award-winning photographer Eugene Tumusiime tells me. When he started shooting in London, he was enchanted by the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus. He followed in the footsteps of generations of street photographers, chasing down decisive moments shared between taxi drivers, bus passengers, and pedestrians in Soho and Chinatown.
Tumusiime still frequents these spots, but he’s also gotten to know another side of the city–the one that lurks beneath the surface and only emerges after dark. His series Neon Nights, years in the making, has taken him through London’s nooks and crannies, where he’s discovered hidden gems and vistas that send shivers down his spine.
He remembers, “I started heading to lesser-known tourist spots, heading up and down the Thames, seeking out roof gardens as vantage points, getting shots of people walking along bridges with skyscraper backdrops, shooting on the Underground—anything that allowed me to take advantage of verticality and scale.”
Neon Nights captures the London of the present-day, but it also provides a snapshot of a possible future, one where the high tech of tomorrow collides with the real-life grit of nighttime in the city. Tumusiime’s photographs are to London what Blade Runner is to Los Angeles, or what Akira is to Tokyo. We asked the artist to tell us more about the ongoing series.
The essential gear of Eugene Tumusiime
Phoblographer: How did you get started as a photographer? What drew you to the medium?
Eugene Tumusiime: I was studying Media BTEC in Sixth Form in 2016, falling in love with Photoshop when I found out what RAW files are. A file format that specifically gives me more control of the image? And my phone can shoot them?! Please. I started walking for pleasure through forests and along canals.
Phoblographer: How and when did the Neon Nights series begin?
Eugene Tumusiime: I was living in Reading at the time, just over a year into starting photography, and I was infatuated with the work of Liam Wong, a former art director at Ubisoft who was known for doing cyberpunk street photography in Tokyo.
I was shooting architecture at the time because I loved pairing clean compositions with highly saturated color theory. Getting the occasional shot of the odd person as a bonus was nice, but Liam’s work ticked every single box I could possibly want. Cinematic. Geometric. Vivid but well-balanced color palettes. I was mesmerized by his work in late 2015, but two years later, after a lot of time spent shooting in forests, canals, and business estates, my thoughts were somewhere along the lines of, “Cool, I can do that.”
As for why I shoot in London, it’s nice to have so much modern architecture and verticality, but ultimately, I just live here. I’d shoot at night anywhere. I love it too much.
Phoblographer: How do you find these neon nightscapes? Do you scout the locations online first, or do you go out exploring and see what you find?
Eugene Tumusiime: My location scouting process typically goes one of two ways; Either I look up “[location] night” on Google Images, or while I’m getting a train into Central London, I’ll pick whichever station name sounds the coolest and get off there. Then I walk around for hours and see what I can find. As long as I can find a tube station, there’s no location too far for me.
Phoblographer: What does a night of shooting look like for you? What conditions do you look for, and what times are ideal?
Eugene Tumusiime: I live on the edge of Greater London, so I religiously keep track of when blue hour starts throughout the year. The second that the sky starts getting a tinge of blue, I’m out of the house. Whether it’s 4:00 PM or 9:00 PM, I’m gone and back by midnight.
It’s the most fun to shoot right after it rains. I haven’t quite mastered the art of shooting with an umbrella, so it’s much easier on me. The streets shine, I can add way more colors to the image, and I can take advantage of reflections in puddles.
If I could do an all-nighter every time, I would. It’s an adventure every time, and I can always find a new alleyway or vantage point.
Phoblographer: What is it like to explore the city at night?
Eugene Tumusiime: Considering that I live so far outside of Central, I don’t typically explore that area in the daytime, so I honestly don’t have much to compare it to. That being said, I love catching people who work at off-licenses, food trucks, bus drivers, people hanging out at the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain–the people that keep the city going. There’s a certain baseline of noise I hear in the city that I don’t get where I live. Even with earphones. High-density traffic, drill music playing from big speakers, people doing nitrous–these things keep me grounded.
Phoblographer: You’re also a cinematographer. Have any films or scenes from films influenced this body of work?
Eugene Tumusiime: I watched Akira for the first time in 2017. There’s a shot during the opening motorcycle chase in which Kaneda speeds off into the city. The camera slowly tilts up and reveals the metropolis of Neo-Tokyo, with skyscrapers stacked behind one another, each one taller than the last. I’ve been chasing that sense of scale ever since.
Also, Taxi Driver is beautiful. Two minutes into my first viewing I blurted out, “Oh yeah! Streets can just be green!”
Phoblographer: What are some of the technical challenges that come with shooting at night?
Eugene Tumusiime: If you use a zoom lens on a Canon 1300D, you just kinda accept that you’ll be habitually shooting at ISO 1600 a lot at night. Getting a decent exposure with a lower ISO value really depends on how good you get at stabilizing the camera. I keep it pushed against poles, rails, etc. just so I can keep the shutter speed below 1/30th for a steady shot. It works when it works.
Phoblographer: Please tell us about these incredible colors. Do you alter them in post-production?
Eugene Tumusiime: I grade in Adobe Bridge; I couldn’t be bothered to make collections or backups in Lightroom when I started shooting, but the set of tools is identical, so there’s that.
I start with color temperature adjustments to see what I can pull out of different light sources, then I use camera calibration tools to bring some harmony to the color palette. This creates a good foundation that I can build on with hue/saturation sliders and local adjustments. I’ll often end up with something completely different, but after spending a while figuring out every single direction I can push an image in, it’s a worthwhile type of difference. Or I figure it out in five minutes. Or two years. It varies.
I should point out that colors don’t have any inherent meaning, and their potential to be visually stimulating really depends on your ability to balance out a palette before I say this:
The actual colors I choose are influenced by a lot of cyberpunk fiction. The Matrix, Blade Runner, Akira, Ghost In The Shell, etc. make a nice style guide for the flavor of dystopia I want to get across. Blue as the primary color simply means “This is the future,” while red is somewhere along the lines of mega-corporations charging people to breathe. That being said, the real fun is in creating as complex a color palette as I can, rather than any kind of social commentary. I just have a lot of things to draw from for inspiration.
Phoblographer: How did the project evolve during lockdowns?
Eugene Tumusiime: When the Christmas lockdown started, it felt strange to shoot empty streets. I enjoyed getting out, and an update to Camera RAW added a hue slider so I could create different color palettes, but I wasn’t punctuating my shots with a person as the focal point of a composition. The legacy of street photographers I drew from didn’t mean much anymore. I just kinda had to be okay with that.
Over time, it became somewhat liberating. At first, I was focused on figuring out the focal point of a shot, but eventually, I was happy making tapestries of complex color palettes. I still am when it comes to “empty” shots.
Phoblographer: What is your most powerful memory from your time creating this body of work?
Eugene Tumusiime: In the 1940s and 50s, London-based architects started to propose Highwalks: public footpaths that were built above street level. They’d make it easier for pedestrians to dodge traffic, and they’d be wonderful sites for public gardens. Only one-tenth of the planned ones were ever built.
I found one by complete accident in 2018. I got off at a train station, noticed that it had a separate exit above street level, and kept walking. I ended up being greeted with an amazing view of skyscrapers that housed luxury flats, office estates, co-working spaces, and restaurants. Some buildings had LEDs running down the side. Some had public gardens.
To this day, very few things have ever summed up my feelings on relentless urban development as both a photographer and a civilian. I could get shots of tiny pedestrians at street level while I also felt so insignificant in comparison to the ever-expanding urban landscape. London gets taller every week.
All photos by Eugene Tumusiime. Used with permission. To learn more about Eugene Tumusiime, be sure to visit his website. Follow along on Instagram at etvisuals, on Behance at etvisuals, on you can shop for his prints here.
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